The Matron’s Assistant

Location : Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

I shall be 88 in September (2008). I was born at Haveringland, near Norwich, and moved to Gressenhall with my parents in1926. My father was the head gamekeeper on the Estate at Gressenhall and I went to the Gressenhall School which was a Church School until I was 12, when I went to the school in Dereham. I left school when I was about 16 and for a while I did go to London where I was a nursery maid to Vice Countess Hitchingbrooke. I was helping to look after Lady Sarah Jane. Montaguewas the family name. Then they had another baby and I was there for about a year, I suppose, really.

Then I came back and I started working at Beech House. It was called Beech House, the Museum that now is; it used to be the workhouse. It had various names: It was the Beeches once, and then it was PA Institution at one time (Public Assistance Institution) in the early days and then I think it went from that to the Beeches and then Beech House in the end.

When I started work there we had the Hospital side which is now the archaeological side, and then there was the Nursery, and then there was the men and the women who were mobile. Some of them were poor people without homes. I don’t suppose it was the Workhouse then as it had been in years gone by, paupers and all that, no it wouldn’t have been. And we had the casuals, which were the tramps, used to come in every night at 6 o’clock. And there was a Labour Master who would see after them, and he would book them in, where they came from and where they were going. They invariably came from Bowthorpe, the West Norwich, which was a Workhouse at one time, and most probably they would be going either to Kings Lynn, which I forget the name of the place there, or Gaydon or Wicklewood. And they would have a bath, clean clothes and fed, and the next day they would do a day’s work, and the following morning they would go out and they had their clothes returned, all laundered, and a lunch given them.

I went there in 1938 and I can’t remember how long they continued. I was Nursery Attendant to start with before I started nursing. There was a nursery and we had children, sick children, and then in later years I became Matron’s Assistant. And there was also a female casual ward, but we had very few females in. It was quite something if we had a female casual in – a tramp off the ward. One of us then had to attend to her, so it was quite something if we had one in.

On the sick ward we had to see after the men. On the sick ward we had two male wards, and we had quite a few coming from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital those days, incurables. They would stay in till the end. You got several incurables those days. But we’ve progressed, haven’t we, so far from then?

And we had the maternity ward, with, I’m not quite sure, I think it was 6 beds and we had the labour ward and the maternity ward and we had 6 beds in there. We had mothers coming in from the locality and during the war we had one or two in. Evacuees, I think they could be, because we had a lot of evacuees during the war round here. We used to have a lot of evacuees to be cleaned up before they went to the billets. We had a lot come from Dagenham and they would either have scabies or, of course, they would have head lice and we had to clean them up, and gown up and clean them up before they went to the billets.

About the laundry: We had a laundry book, and every night we done the laundry and listed it and sent it each morning, somebody collected it, one of the able-bodied inmates, we’ll say, collected it and took it down to the laundry, and then it was delivered back to the wards, or whichever department the next afternoon. They also used to do the Children’s Home in Dereham, which was collected and washed in our laundry at Beech House. I should say about a dozen worked in the laundry in my early days and you didn’t have electric irons then, you had the flat irons heated on a tall stove which was heated with coke, and the irons varied in size. I can’t tell you which ones were used for what really, but they varied in size for various things they were ironing.

They had a sorting house down there, next to the laundry was a sorting house, I don’t know what it’s used for now, and the laundry was sorted into piles, like sheets, draw sheets, clothing, and everything, and hand washed with soap. And of course you’ve got fire laundry, draw sheets, which had to be sluiced before it went to the laundry. Of course they were all in different piles. And there was racks which are still down the laundry. The racks where the various, like sheets and everything, went in. The wooden racks, I’m talking about. Those you pull out were called horses. I think there’s six or is there four? Six. When the driers were bad they were pulled out and they used to dry on there, but they could air on there. I can remember them saying things used to fall down and somebody used to have to crawl right in to get them. I can remember that.

And of course the sheets were put through the calender, draw sheets, large sheets. That’s a big roller which was clothed with, it’s not felt, that is not the word, but I can’t remember . But I do know they had to go through three times and then they were aired, three times, were aired. And nurses’ aprons and that were ironed, caps were ironed. Sisters had fancy caps, goffered in my days. We had goffering irons, I can remember those, and she used to goffer them. Sister had those caps. Staff nurse didn’t , I don’t think, and Matron didn’t, but Sisters did. We only had one Sister in the wards.

The washing was hung outside sometimes in the laundry yard. Oh yes, all put out. If not it was dried on the horses. Of course, there were two or three washing machines, two, maybe three, I really forget. And the big hydro which was really a spin dryer. The laundress then, who went to a friend of mine, and she used to say to me when I get a home of my own I’m going to have one of those. Of course, it’s a spinner really, just a spinner, a big spinner, hydro they called it. The sheets and everything went in there, well everything went in there.

If I wanted anything, or if anything was lost I used to go in there, and the atmosphere was very happy really. Oh yes, it was. They chatted to each other. They didn’t work Saturdays or Sundays, not in the laundry. I can’t remember their hours, I suppose it was 8 till 4, I should say, in the laundry, I’m not quite sure about that. But then, latter years you see, they got electric irons so they did away with the stove. They were all employed. I don’t think we had any residents working in there. I can’t remember.

I can’t remember the Matron’s name when I started. I lived in. The first bedroom I had was at the far side, with the fire escape in, right at the top. We had our own bedrooms. That was fine. I married the engineer in 1942. We had the flat which is now the marvellous restaurant, that was our flat. I did have my daughter while we were there.

We were the last out in 1975 when it closed. My daughter, what is she, 64 / 65 this year, no, she wasn’t born there. I did have a month off, that’s all. You didn’t get time off those days, no, no, no. I was working right up to producing her. Then I was back. But I did have somebody .. . . It worked in very well. … You didn’t have time.. .. And she did have whooping cough at three months. I went to see the Matron. I said I’d have to have time off. She said you can have your holiday. So I went home to my mother and I done the nights and my mother saw after her during the day. She was very, very poorly. Only had two weeks off. I think it got her over the worst. She was very poorly with that. And it was back to work. I did have somebody see after her, of course. I had to, you see, because she still not over it all, but I saw after her in between times. My husband, you see, being an engineer, his hours would be 8 till 5 or something like that, so he was there evenings and mornings if I went on at 7, or in between he was there.

When I first went there it was 7 till 10, and we had two hours off during the day like 10-12 or 2 to 4. Night staff didn’t come on till 10, but then it got to 8, and then used to be 8 till 8 in the latter years, but you still got the two hours off during the day, as I said, 10 till 12 or 2 to 4. But the 10 till12 you would have 12 till 1 for your lunch, same with tea really.

We lived in at the flat, and the Cook and Porter lived at the lodge, which is as you come in the side door, that little lodge there. They were married, the Cook and the Porter. The Laundress and Labour Master lived in Cherry Tree Cottage. He was called the Labour Master because he saw after the tramps, but then he saw after the gardens, because we grew all our own vegetables, of course, you see, which has now been taken into grass. It was all kitchen gardens. In overall charge were the Matron and Superintendent, we had a Superintendent. They were a married couple, of course, yes. He had a secretary, oh yes.

I wonder if I can tell you anything else about the laundry really? The staff laundry. We had to do our own laundry on a Sunday night and take it down on the Monday morning, our own laundry, our own personal sheets and things. We had to do them in a separate laundry book and take it down to the laundry. I never took my own . .. . I always done my own smalls and things. I didn’t take my own .. . . only the sheets and towels and tea towels and things, not my own personal things. (Interviewer asks whether she had to pay for laundry). Well, it all come out of our emoluments, didn’t it? You see. (laughs), Yes, you see, we paid quite a bit really, that was deducted.

(Interviewer asks what sort of wages she and her husband got) Well I couldn’t tell you, I can’t remember really. I can’t remember. Going back through pay slips. No, I can’t remember. As I think I tell you, we came out in ’75, and my husband died in ’76, but we slipped up under the Superann. We came under the 1938 Superannuation and we could have opted out in 1940-something, but we opted to stay with the 1938, which didn’t work out. It would have been good if he had lived, but he didn’t, but we didn’t know that. Therefore when he died after 38 years, you see, I lost his pension. He died in 1976 and we had left in 1975. He took early retirement, he was 63. But I got another job. I went nursing at Etling Grange in Dereham. Nine years. They kept my job open and I was just glad to get back to something to do.

My last job at Gressenhall was as Matron’s Assistant. You see in 1948 we went Part 3 when the National Health Service came in. They done away with our Dispensary We had our own Dispensary and everything was done there but they done away with that because they said we could have everything on prescription, but it didn’t work out. Too many patients. So we didn’t have a Dispensary, but we did have a medicine chest and everything. They segregated, which was Part 3, but it was very difficult. Before the NHS we got quite a few from the Norfolk & Norwich, men and women who were incurable, but anybody who became sick, and the elderly, you see, really. It was geriatric nursing really, it was geriatric nursing, yes.

It wasn’t easy looking back, when you think, today. We never had everything disposable – I mean, syringes, but we never had infection. I mean, our syringes, we had one or two, but they were, I can remember, in little glass containers with the methylated spirits and if we were on night duty we done the swabs and they went into drums and they were sterilised. To give enemas, I can remember all this tubing. And you hated being in the sluices what with the bedpans and the bottles and everything, but you thought nothing of it. It was part of the job. In the sluice. I mean, everything’s disposable today. And the draw sheets, you don’t have draw sheets today. We had mats on the bed, rubber mats on the bed, which were kept on a pole in the sluices, and then when a bed became empty we had to what they call carbolise it, which was wash it all down, even the springs and everything, and the locker and everything. Really good. And the Matron used to . . What ward you were on, you were responsible for dusting it and Matron would do her round about 11 … and run her finger along .. (laughs) … Yes, she would. She was Welsh that one, I can remember. Yes, she did, yes, she did. It’s a very different world today, nursing. We didn’t have drugs those days. I suppose our only ….. They did have morphine, which was in a tablet form, which Sister, of course … She used to do it between two spoons, dilute it, then draw it up in a syringe. Morphine. Lysol for doing the beds. And in the Dispensary, I mean, everything used to be in winchesters, I think it was green for poison and blue . . . and white… and everything had to be made up. We didn’t have tablets as such. I suppose aspirins . . .

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